Author/activist Asha Bandele remembers the Koch era in Dickensian terms—it was the best of times, it was the worst of time, “Life under Koch was like living in two different cities,” she says. “He might’ve been larger than life, but I felt unsafe under his watch. In addition, don’t forget, under his watch there was an extraordinary explosion of homelessnes.”

Having worked in homeless shelters throughout the Eighties, I can attest that these depressing abodes were spookier than the Overlook Hotel from The Shining. In Times Squares, the entire area was littered with welfare hotels. Within the walls of these once grand hotels, drugs were rampant and pimps were running brothels out of the rooms. During my decade-long stint within the system, there were countless crazy incidents, including two suicides, and despite Koch’s reassuring rhetoric, things never seemed like they got any better.

Regardless of all the problems in the city Koch remained a charismatic figure. Grammy-winning record producer Dante Ross fondly remembers the day he bumped into the mayor in Greenwich Village. “I was skateboarding down 8th Street when I saw him.” says Ross, who was 13 at the time. “I stopped him and we debated for ten minutes. My teacher had marked me absent during a transit strike and I didn’t think it was fair, so I thought he could make her change it. I respected his accessibility. I didn’t always agree with his politics, but I respected him as a man. He was a tough Jew.”

 

I didn’t always agree with his politics, but I respected him as a man. He was a tough Jew.

 

One of Koch’s early battles was his war on graf writers who were relentlessly tagging and bombing the subway system. Despite his ongoing conflict with these street artists, Koch still had balls to appear in the classic 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars. “He took on the fight against the graf crowd with enthusiasm and humor,” recalls Henry Chalfant, Style Wars producer and co-author of the classic graf book Subway Art. “More than politics, I’ve always thought of him as a showman. He was a theatrical person and New York always needs a colorful figure to like.”

Former graf artist Cay Adams, who appears in the film as well, remembers finding it funny that the one time he saw Koch in person was at a screening of Basquint, the biopic about the former graf writer turned legendary painter. “He was no joke about the subways,” Cey says with a laugh. “He thought the subways were fucked up and he was determined to clean them up.”

Writer, editor and guitarist for the White Mandingos Sacha Jenkins says, “Of course, as a kid who wrote graffiti in New York way back when, Koch was the enemy, but he was also a real New Yorker--which meant he could be brilliant and difficult at the same time.”  

 

Koch was the enemy, but he was also a real New Yorker--which meant he could be brilliant and difficult at the same time.

 

James Romberger, who worked with the brilliant gay writer/artist David Wojnarowicz on the recently reissued graphic novel 7 Miles a Second (Fantagraphics) clearly remembers Koch’s indifference towards the AIDS crisis that took Wojnarowicz’s life and so many other great New Yorkers’. “He was a closeted gay man who was also an enemy of the poor,” Romberger alleges. “Look at what happened with the Tompkins Square riots. He only cared about some of the city’s citizens, not all.”

Comic book writer Robert Morales, who frequently collaborates with artist Kyle Baker, says, “Many people credit him with bringing the city back, but he did that by killing off the middle class and selling out the neighborhoods. Meanwhile, up in the Bronx, instead of rebuilding neighborhoods, he painted phony windows on abandoned buildings.”

Independent film and music executive Gary Harris, who began his career at Sugar Hill Records and later worked with A Tribe Called Quest and D’Angelo has a different view. “Of course he wasn’t perfect, but while Koch was Mayor, hip hop emerged as both a voice of the voiceless and an economic power tool for the powerless. Club life and creativity flourished and a golden age in art, music, fashion and design coincided with his era. Artists flocked from everywhere to the Apple. Empires were built, and great cultural figures made their mark.” 

Indeed, once Ed Koch lost at his fourth run for mayor and he was replaced by Dinkins, who was succeeded by Rudy Giuliani, and later Michael Bloomberg, the city quickly changed from a funky town where one could smoke a joint on the street or a cigarette in a bar or go watch porn on 42nd Street to a yuppie paradise where bottle service and expensive real estate are the norm. Say what you will about Koch, but he wouldn’t have tolerated the “malling of Manhatan.”

Now, instead of Show World or Danceteria, we have Rite-Aide or Starbucks. Even the hood ain’t the hood no more. As Judy McGuire, author of The Official Book of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll Lists puts it “New York was punk rock under Koch. Now it's adult contemporary.”

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